The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Posted: June 23, 2020 by Brian Johnston

I’ll just say it: America was a better place before the internet. Don’t get me wrong, I love the value of social networking, the convenience of Amazon, the simplicity of paying my bills online, and the power to communicate to swaths of people all over the world in an instant. Better still, I love having answers to virtually any question I might have in the palm of my hand. The internet is a seductively powerful tool, to be sure, and has changed our lives for the better in many ways. 

But has it made us better people? 

Personally, I have a hard time believing that on many levels and I am willing to bet that most people would tend to agree with me. What started as a platform designed to bring us together has devolved into, at best, a digital shouting match and, at worst, a destroyer of worlds. With a mere handful of keystrokes, careers have been ended, marriages have been torn apart, and lives have been ruined. The power of the internet has been harnessed by people to take a single incident in a person’s life—be it an off-color joke, a tone-deaf comment, or an instance of inappropriate behavior—and amplify, magnify, and promulgate it to the entire world, inciting the masses to take a wide variety of action against an individual including, but far from limited to, public shaming, alerting a person’s employer, and outing their address. This opens the door to unlimited harassment, with the court of public opinion serving as judge, jury, and executioner. Nobody is exempt from prosecution by this kangaroo court. To that end, I feel the need to identify the Four Horsemen of our pending apocalypse. Their names are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.  

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: I realize that I use all of these tools in one way or another. This message wouldn’t be reaching your eyes without the tools of social media, so I will nod along to any assertion of my hypocrisy. Without the internet and social media, my platform becomes infinitesimally small—mostly whomever I can convince to listen to me one-on-one, absent some mode of mainstream publication. Moreover, I am not exempt from the trappings of social media, allowing it to trigger me countless numbers of times across the entirety of my waking hours. How many times do I check my phone throughout the day? If I answer honestly, it’s countless dozens—maybe even hundreds. So many times, that I find the idea of attempting to take an actual count too physically exhausting to bother. It is far easier for me to admit that I, like everyone, am just another sinner in the crowd, equally guilty of contributing to the demise of our society, possibly even more so since virtually everything I pen is an opinion piece. Consider this part of my contrition and an attempt at increasing awareness of the problem, starting with self-awareness.  

The biggest of the Four Horsemen is clearly Facebook. A natural evolution of earlier platforms like Myspace, Facebook has become the de-facto social media tool of today, useful for reconnecting with former classmates, finding groups of people with shared interests, setting up actual events in real life, and arguing political talking points neatly summed up in a single, snarky picture with absolute strangers. It was allegedly this platform that was infiltrated by Russian trolls to sow discord and swing public opinion leading to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I find it interesting that with the trillions of dollars we’ve spent collectively on nuclear weapons to annihilate each other, it took merely a handful of hackers in some troll farm to send the United States racing toward our demise. I genuinely hope the next time I encounter a meme that triggers me, I take a moment to consider the source. Memes never change our opinions, but they sure can galvanize our current stance, preventing any fluidity, even in the face of new information. If I were the devil and I were trying to divide and conquer America, this would be my tool of choice. 

The second horseman of the apocalypse is YouTube. Since its introduction on Valentine’s Day in 2005, YouTube has grown to be the second most popular search engine on the internet, trailing only behind Google. Harmless on the surface with puppy videos, how-to channels, and musical performances, YouTube has devolved into the international town square where the court of public opinion renders judgement, shackling the scapegoat du jour into the stocks, pillories, and whipping posts to take their public shaming. Now that we all have video cameras in our pockets, EVERYONE is fair game, even if the game itself is in no way fair.  

Consider the case of George Floyd. Darnella Fraizer, the 17-year-old who recorded the infamous video of the murder taking place, was on the receiving end of backlash for ‘not doing enough’ to stop the tragedy. Never mind the fact that she was a minor, that there were many other bystanders, that there were three other officers present, and that without her video, today’s call for justice wouldn’t even exist. None of that stopped people from assigning her blame, adding another ancillary victim to an already dreadful incident. The same can be said about Mahmoud Abumayyaleh, the owner of Cup Foods, the store that called the police about the fake $20 bill that was allegedly passed by George Floyd. Within a day, this man was the target of a meme seeking vengeance against him and his business: MEET THE MAN WHO CALLED THE POLICE ON GEORGE FLOYD FOR AN ALLEGEDLY FAKE $20 BILL. He wasn’t even present when his employees called the police—which is PRECISELY what the US Treasury department website mandates that you do when you receive a suspected fake bill. Furthermore, he issued a formal apology with deep regret, vouched for the character of George Floyd as a person, had his business destroyed in the ensuing riots, and paid for the funeral that he didn’t cause and obviously wished hadn’t occurred in the first place.  

This is the inordinate power of YouTube, and it is a power that only grows with every racist tirade, entitled Karen, and abusive cop caught on camera. While we’re at it, let’s not forget all the challenge videos that have stupid kids swallowing Tide Pods, accidentally inhaling cinnamon, and re-enacting the George Floyd incident all in the hopes of getting digital likes or, better yet, GOING VIRAL—a concept that holds real irony while we face a true pandemic.  

Perhaps the most innocuous-looking of the Four Horsemen is Instagram. As a platform for sharing family photos or images of the beautiful world that surrounds all of us, Instagram is a wonderful tool. But a deeper dive reveals something very ugly about our society: People are far too image-conscious.  

A very real change happened the moment we started installing front-facing cameras on our phones. The minute a ‘selfie’ became an instantly-accessible thing not requiring a well-placed mirror, they became ubiquitous. Almost overnight someone invented the selfie stick, and all of a sudden, we had people walking around snapping pictures of themselves, oblivious to the outside world. The number of pedestrians getting hit by cars has risen astronomically in a perfect storm of unobservant walkers and equally-distracted drivers. How many times do we have to hear of an Instagrammer falling to their death or being mauled by some dangerous animal just to get that perfect picture? Then there’s the non-collateral damage Instagram has caused. The need for people to display the perfect family, on the perfect vacation, eating the perfect meals, and having perfect lives has created unattainable expectations, leading to depression.  

In fact, Instagram is widely considered the number one cause of depression in today’s children. It is the place where most cyberbullying takes place, with every opportunity to single out any peer deemed awkward, a loner, or just different. That we reduce our lives to some filtered image off our cell phones is indicative of our shallow nature, and Instagram just serves to ensure that we stay that way.  

The last of the Four Horsemen is Twitter, a 280-character demon of destruction. Twitter is the most lethal horseman that has the most direct impact on adults. A great sportscaster I listen to has likened it to having a loaded gun on your nightstand. If you are awoken by a startling noise during the night, there is an increased likelihood that you will grab that gun and shoot, regardless of whether you have a clear understanding of what is actually taking place. This is how accidents happen. Such is the case of the inadvisable tweet—and it doesn’t even have to meet the bar of offensive to get you in trouble.  

Take the case of longtime Sacramento Kings broadcaster Grant Napear. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, former Kings player DeMarcus Cousins teed-up a trap, tweeting to Napear, “What’s your take on BLM?” 

Napear responded, “Hey!!! How are you? Thought you forgot about me. Haven’t heard from you in years. ALL LIVES MATTER…EVERY SINGLE ONE.” And with that single tone-deaf response, a career was over.  

Napear apologized on Twitter to no effect and resigned on the air immediately following the overwhelming response to his words. I cannot speak to the motives of DeMarcus Cousins, but there is a backstory. “Trading DMC was an absolute no brainer!” Napear said in a 2017 tweet. “There has been a dark cloud over this franchise for years! That cloud is now gone!” It seems Cousins had both a long memory and a measure of confidence that Napear was going to bite at the tweet-bait, as indicated by his response, “Lol as expected.” 

While this is the most current example I could think of, it’s far from a lone incident of a tweet getting a celebrity fired, as I suspect Kathy Griffin and Gilbert Gottfried will attest. The question is, why on Earth would a celebrity—or anybody for that matter—even invite such a problem by going on the platform in the first place? Of course, one only has to look to our Commander-In-Chief or Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez to see the power of the platform. Donald Trump uses it as his main form of direct communication with the world, averaging more than 26 posts per day. AOC even offered a crash-course in Twitter to her older Democratic counterparts in Congress, reinforcing the stature of the platform among politicians.  

Politicians are particularly calculated people, so the cost-benefit analysis must come up on the positive side for them to take such a risk. And risky it is. Do we possess such failure of imagination that we cannot see how a misinterpreted message invoking ‘fire and fury’ might cause a tenuous geopolitical situation to spiral out of control? In such a scenario, Twitter could be a horseman of the ACTUAL apocalypse. 

The advent of social media was so promising: reconnecting with friends, building business through professional networking, sharing family pictures, puppy videos, and demystifying household projects. It seemed like a natural evolution: computer networks were to be a logical bridge to people networks. But like most innovations, the massive benefits obscured the latent hazards lurking just beneath the surface.  

Today the tools that keep us connected are exactly what’s dividing us. Advances in technology require advancement of the human mind and spirit merely to keep pace. The question remains: Can we evolve fast enough to stay at least one step ahead of all Four Horsemen? The harsh reality is that it is a question that will remain elusive until we find out the answer is ‘NO.’ If and when that happens, will there even be anyone left to say, “I told you so?” 

Brian Johnston
Author: Brian Johnston

Author, podcaster, optimist, guardian of The Proversation.


References

  1. Image by Jeroným Pelikovský from Pixabay
  2. Americans check their phones 96 times a day
  3. The link between Instagram and depression in children
  4. US Treasury -- If you suspect a counterfeit
  5. Owner of Cup Food speaks about George Floyd's death
  6. The math behind the memes
  7. Trump tweets more than 26 times per day
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1 Comment

  • Jolene Reply

    So well said…harrowing image of our reality.

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